Thank You, Angelina
Protect Patents to Save Lives
As most of you are probably aware, the recent disclosurethat famed actress and philanthropist, Angelina Jolie, has taken the bold and courageous step of having a double mastectomy after diagnostic testing revealed that she had an 87% chance of contracting breast cancer. Her public revelation arrived with uncanny timing – the scientific testing methodology which yielded this dramatic revelation is known as the BRAC Analysis – a genetic test which tells doctors about a patients’ likelihood of developing breast (and ovarian) cancer. After many years of research and $500M in investment, this breakthrough test was developed and patented by Myriad Genetics, Inc., a company whose founders include the Chairman of Spencer Trask & Co.
Within the next few weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will make a landmark decision answering the most important question dictating the future course of medicine – can genetic discoveries – specific patterns of DNA – be patented? The Court’s action will either drive science to continue to help patients combat cancer and other diseases before they strike, or kill the financial incentives that fuel the research and discovery of these breakthrough diagnostics.
The story of how Myriad came to be is worth telling because of its relevance to future Myriads and how science is harnessed to serve mankind. At its core, the tale illustrates the important role patent protection plays in preserving the incentives entrepreneurs need to take on the risk that spurs innovation.
A Little History
In the 1970’s there was an intense global competition to understand how defective genes might foreshadow various types of cancer, including breast cancer. “There is no more exciting story in medical science,” said Nobel prize-winner, Dr. James Watson, who co-discovered the double-helix structure of DNA years before.
Dr. Mark Skolnick of the University of Utah was part of that early effort. “Skolnick’s mapping technique is the precursor to the most ambitious project ever attempted in biology, the mapping of the entire human genome,” wrote Jerry Bishop and Michael Waldholz in their book Genome.
Another preeminent researcher leading the charge to decipher the human genome was Harvard University’s Dr. Walter Gilbert, the inventor of DNA sequencing – for which he shared the Lasker Award and Nobel Prize – and co-founder in 1978 of the pioneering biotechnology company Biogen. In 1986, he stunned the world with a sobering estimate that it would cost $3 billion to sequence the entire human genome. Like Skolnick, Gilbert spent years unsuccessfully trying to raise capital for a genome corporation. Fame and acclaim are not enough to make innovation practical and touch people’s lives. Successful research requires capital, and in today’s medicine, lots of it.
And that’s where the power of patent protection had its greatest impact.
Investing in Myriad’s Gene Patent
With the promise of patentability assured, over 200 anonymous, private individuals invested a total of $10 million in this risky startup with an uncertain future, Myriad Genetics. All of the investors placed their money at risk for two reasons: to help find a cure for cancer and to make a return on their investments.
It’s critical to remember that if Myriad’s isolated DNA was not potentially patentable at the time, no one would have invested – no one – and the company would not have existed. But with the patent protections in place, Myriad was able to attract another $490 million to build the gold standard in breast cancer prediction and to develop 17 other process patents – all with the express purpose of saving lives.
In return for full exposure of the ‘intimate details,’ patent-holders are granted the right to commercialize without worrying about others stealing or misappropriating their intellectual property. The patent process actually informed rivals of BRCA1 details precisely so they may compete – but only if they improve upon the invention. As a result of this voluntary public disclosure, over 9,600 published studies have been done on the BRCA1 patent to date.
In this case, the patent system worked. Myriad delivered BRCA1 and then BRCA2, and today it saves women’s lives with the earliest possible detection. Next year, the patent expires and Myriad’s work will be free for the taking. However, during its 20-year patent protection period, Myriad had a chance to build on its efforts and contribute to the medical needs of thousands.
The Uncertain Future of Biotech
The case before the Supreme Court is not really about Myriad’s expiring patent, but about future Myriads and finding investors for future pioneers. If anyone can copy an invention, no one will publish ideas in a patent. Scientific discoveries will be locked away for centuries as trade secrets(i.e. Coca-Cola’s secret recipe) and few will invest.
Inhibiting the free flow of information by forcing biotech and scientific discovery into dark caves of trade secrets will deny therapies to future cancer patients, but will also jeopardize America’s scientific and economic future.